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  • Writer's pictureLarissa Lewis

5 Ways to Find Out How Customers Really Use Your Product

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Cars were being rented. There were 230,000 registered users! The business plan was working. Imagine the rejoicing in the boardroom! 

Many companies would proceed to celebrate the success. Orix, a Japanese car-sharing service, however, discovered some oddities in the mileage reports. They found that a high-percentage of vehicles were being returned as having traveled zero distance. What was going on?

Costing less than $4 to borrow a car for 30 minutes, Orix discovered customers weren’t actually using the cars for driving. They discovered people were using them as a quiet place to watch TV or eat a sandwich during their lunch break, have a private area to get dressed up for Halloween, talk on the phone, take a nap or even practice their rap game.

Swing for the fences or at intruders? Customers do not always use products as we think they will. (credit: Reddit)

The way we think people use our products compared to how they are actually being used in the real world can be shocking. Once we send a product out the door, how it’s used falls into the hands of our customer - and is no longer subject to boardroom anecdote or what-we-thought-was “extensive research.” As an ‘expert’ in your product, it can often be challenging to remember that most customers are not an expert in your perspective.

Often times, people come up with their own creative ways to use something outside of the way you intended the product to be used. It’s these valuable insights that help develop, evolve and improve your product offering. It’s important to get out from behind your desk from time-to-time and getting in the trenches to understand how customers actually use your product can make or break its success.

Things you might discover when in the trenches:

  • Misunderstood instructions leading to creative improvisation by customers. While some misuses can lead to accidents, some unexpected workarounds can provide you with an entirely different perspective on how people are actually interacting with your product. 

  • Right-handed people may use it differently than left-handed people. A misstep in color choice might render it useless for color blind people.

  • Ingenious, makeshift additions to solve easily lost pieces (a surprising number of people will make-do instead of spending the time to contact customer service for a replacement)

  • It might be frequently used in conjunction with other products or in activities that render yours hard to use. How annoying is it to balance your chicken fingers, fries, and soda order at a ball game

  • Other technologies or legislation can crop up that present new challenges when using your product. For example, as states pass legislation to charge for grocery bags, more and more customers are walking out of the market sans bag. It’s more and more challenging to fumble with a key fob when balancing an armful of loose groceries.

Famous insights that completely changed product strategy

We all love to mold and smush that bright, bendy dough in the yellow can. But did you know the beloved bin of never-ending fun started as a wallpaper cleaner? Kutol debuted in the 1920s as a way to clean off grime and residue generated by coal heating. As oil and gas heating increased in popularity, Kutol saw profits decline, and nearly went out of business. In 1954, a nursery school teacher in Ohio was on the hunt for cheap craft materials to create holiday ornaments and found that Kutol was the ideal material. This insight gave us Play-Doh! Getting as close as you can to observing your product in action can yield fascinating results. 

Play-Doh originally began as a wallpaper cleaner popular during the days of coal heating.

Another example of closely monitoring how your product is used comes by way of the MacMini. In 2005, Apple launched an interesting device called the MacMini sending the brand’s trailblazing early adopters in all sorts of directions hunting down new uses for it. While it started as an easy way to port PC data for new Mac users, people started connecting a MacMini to their televisions to watch movies or listen to music in the living room, or to have the real estate of a larger monitor.

Apple observed these trends, and in 2006, they added an HDMI port to the MacMini to make it easier to connect televisions to the device. They also included an Apple remote, and pre-installed the app Front Row; an early iteration of a home library of your digital media. These early adopters jury-rigged their own rudimentary device that would later become what we know now as Apple TV. 

Why does direct observation work better than relying exclusively on digital surveys?

Many people consider the human mind to be a veritable tape recorder, but more often than not, we assemble puzzle pieces together from disparate parts of our brain to construct a memory. It’s why eyewitness testimony is increasingly unreliable. How stressful the event was, how we are asked about it, what has happened since, and how we feel about ourselves in the present moment can often impact our interpretation of a memory.

Contrary to popular belief, memory doesn't work like a camera. If using a survey, make sure to ask the right questions at the right time.

Humans also have the tendency to answer questions in terms of what they wish they had done as opposed to what they actually did. It’s why we swear we sent that email reply, or promise ourselves we turned off the coffee maker - we’re able to develop vivid memories of ‘what happened,’ even if it’s not what happened after all.

Working for a company that designed and manufactured aerodynamic equipment for racing bicycles, many people often believed they knew precisely how customers would use a given product. The equipment was sleek like a race car, glistening and polished. Once we started attending more events in-person, we observed many of the ways people used the product once it left the warehouse. Installation errors, creative was wild how customers essentially invented their own way to use it. On one product, many customers had jury-rigged contraptions to stabilize the equipment.

Talk to customers and get a hands-on feel for how your product truly performs in the real world. As this article points out, “changing the checkout button in an e-commerce website to appear white on a white background will not be caught by any automated test. But it still will drive revenue to zero.”

We also found that a key piece was frequently missing. This led to changes in installation instructions as well as guided parts of future re-designs. This helps you become more proactive about product issues. We also used it as a customer service opportunity, loading up on the oft missing bits and pieces and gifting them to those that we noticed were missing them.

While there are lots of Analytics and digital tools you can use to monitor customer behavior, it’s important to pop out from behind the cubicle or data stream. Talk to customers and get a hands-on feel for how your product truly performs in the real world. As this article points out, “changing the checkout button in an e-commerce website to appear white on a white background will not be caught by any automated test. But it still will drive revenue to zero.”

5 Ways to Find Out How Your Product is Really Used

Do you aggregate customer service calls?

Too many companies miss this easy-to-do task. Don’t blindly answer the phone, briskly answer a question and have that be the end of it. Even if you are a small business with limited access to customer tracking software, keep an Excel spreadsheet of common customer problems or FAQs. Not only will the record provide insight into common issues and how your products are used in the real world, you’ll also be able to mine it for blog post ideas.

Aggregate customer service questions, concerns and complaints so you have an accurate record of in-field product performance.

Keep in mind that 96% of customers don’t complain, so simply going by memory makes the 4% that do look like a blip on the radar. Implement a way to observe trends, because there could be a flood of other disappointed customers that simply decided to no longer do business with you.

Get out the door.

There’s nothing better than observing your product in the wild. Is there a place you can go to watch it in use? Where do people using your product commune? For example, while at the park with your kid family members you can keep an eye out on how people rig up strollers. If your product benefits runners, go spectate your city’s marathon or local 10K to get a real-life look at what people are doing. If your product benefits video gamers, there are plenty of places you can go to watch people play in real life.

Sometimes, you can find the most valuable insight when you breakaway from behind the computer screen.

Seeing how people unconsciously interact with your product can yield exponentially different results than a survey. If there isn’t a “public venue”, you can consider inviting top customers to your office to see how they interact with the product, or host a gathering with friends to watch them give it a try.

Polls or Surveys.

Using a platform like SurveyMonkey, you can send out polls and surveys to your customers. Unless you have a very specific question in mind, or questions for a very specific user type, polls can offer wildly different results. 

In the example of the Japanese rental cars, they began polling based on data that their cars were not accumulating miles. Their  survey questions were likely very pinpointed to find out why, instead of just “on a scale of 1-10 did you enjoy using this product?” If I had a nice nap in the car, I’d give the experience a “10” and move on without giving any hint that I never actually drove it. Without knowing precisely what you are looking for, surveys can mislead your results.

Also, as we talked about, asking questions about what happened in the past can yield fuzzy recollection. I once asked a question prior to an event “How did you hear about this event?”, and compared it to answers to the same question on a post-event survey. While the pre-event survey had the majority of people selecting “Social Media,” “Advertisement,” or “Event Postcard at Work,” the post-event survey indicated demonstrably more “From a Friend.” By the time the event actually came around, people likely forgot how they had originally heard of it and only remembered the fun experience they had with their friends.

Pay attention to social media. 

This is a great starting point, but don’t end here. With so many photos and videos perfectly curated to perfection, the customer experience might not end up as a realistic look at your product. Cars are perfectly polished, bicycles perfectly positioned, ingredients sprinkled ideally into cooking apparatuses, rooms cleaned to perfection. There are so many examples of people not even doing what they were pictured doing, so if your product is used for swimming, you might not get a realistic idea of how people are really using it. 

One mistake made when mining customer use data from social media, is that companies are prone to paying closer attention to accounts with big followings or videos with a lot of views. While these can be helpful, they’re likely from a more advanced or long-time user. Find videos with 50, 5…hell, even 1 view, to get a full picture. I once stumbled across someone who fashioned his own modular carbon fiber add-ons and fixes - something I never would have found if I stuck to the trending videos section. 

Keep using your product!

This might sound ridiculous, but I’ve met with many top executives at companies that haven’t ever used any of the company’s key offerings. Constantly try it for yourself, under different conditions, over-time, etc. If feasible, make sure your entire team does the same.

As you can see, it’s not necessary to hire a pricey firm or commission an expensive focus group, but getting as close to you can at physically observing your product in-use can be the key to long-term success. The best way to lose sight of success is to think you know everything - so make sure you position yourself as a lifelong learner of your product experience.


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